I Need An Umbrella: Kristin Hersh & Bipolar Disorder
She sways back and forth with hypnotizing eyes, singing of snakes and moving like one. Entranced by her own mysticism, influenced by her overwhelming brain sways. Kristin Hersh is a force I cannot ignore. Her lyrics are obscure poems that form her own dialect, shape her own sound in alternative/college rock. Her guitar winding melodies around my mind, around my heart. Perverse dives, and abrasive strums that make me aware she is more than alive. She plays the way mania feels. Drums that pitter-patter and make her songs careen like the controlled car crash she crafts.
Rat Girl is Hersh's memoir, and a champion in describing many of my mental leanings. Recently, I was diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar, and reading about bipolar (before I knew I had it) in such descriptive, and beautiful terms was a way of introducing myself to the capabilities I posses because of my disorder. While dealing with my disorder is immensely trying, and Hersh's is no doubt more so, Hersh's writing style is inspiring to writers, those who have bipolar, and musicians (I happen to fall in all three categories.) I know the person she tries to impress the most is herself, and this is both a harrowing, and admirable position. I have found that in striving for self-betterment for myself, I have felt more joy than when I was trying to play mental chess (guessing what others will think, two turns in advance - this is part of my anxiety, which is an intrinsic issue I would argue) with any artistic endeavor, or any small task. In my opinion, Hersh's success is largely due to her owning her perceptions, and sharing them unabashedly. She is creating worlds, and if you don't want to live in them, that's your choice.
Hersh's written language is wielded so carefully, so artfully, her musicianship described as such an abstract force, and a powerful one at that. Her poignant lines have been etched in my brain - she describes "losing her music" after being in a car crash, stopping her medication when she became pregnant, and watching herself perform (she was repulsed and unfamiliar with her movements.) In Hersh's discussion of feeling alienated due to her illness, she creates a path for those who have it and who read her words - she is someone to connect to. Though, she is far, she is close to my conscious being. I feel comforted knowing that her understanding of the world is poetic, and tragic, and memorable, and that I have the capability to use my understanding for similar outcomes.
Her musical contributions are so vast. She has played in Throwing Muses, 50 Foot Wave, and even has her own solo project (she is touring the U.K. this year actually!) I look forward to hearing her for many years - once I move past dancing to my already beloved favorites.
Instead of an album review, I will discuss a few topical songs from multiple albums.
"Fish," Throwing Muses (Throwing Muses, 1986).
Even at an early age, Hersh was able to separate sounds to create conversely memorable musical tracks, defined by punctuation between colliding drum beats, and guitar parts. "Fish" is a prime example of Hersh's handle on complicated noises, and her ability to create a harmony (by using harmonies, in fact.) The beginning of Rat Girl finds a young Hersh staring at a Jesus sculpture on the wall - she notices it looks like a fish. This peculiarity, and the many peculiarities she can identify with her keen eye and fascinated mind help to shape her lyrics. "Fish" is a haunting song, with vocals that trail, and tremble to a steady cavalry-reminiscent drum beat. The song features counting, an interesting template within a song, a way of measuring and keeping track of a feeling so all-encompassing, it attempts to break the boundaries of the song. This building feeling provided by the counting, creates an eerie suspense that is broken with Hersh's chant "Don't worry/ dance in the road/ and it explodes..." Hersh attempts to create a solace within an unforgiving landscape, a noise (Hersh has commented that "mania is a very noisy thing"), and the woman who seeks to define that noise rather than be defined by it.
"Mania," Throwing Muses (Hunkpapa, 1989).
"Mania" is an easily distinguishable tune from Throwing Muses' repertoire. It's jarring, relentless sound moves fast like one's mind during a manic phase.The song is almost reminiscent of Syd Barrett's lyrics on Opel - psychedelic, frightening, vigorous. Hersh's lyrics are cryptic, symbolic and surprisingly catchy. It moves like a train coming right towards you. Starkly contrasted from the polished sounds on University, and the soothing melodic songs with her cousin Tanya Donnelly, "Mania" is an unforgiving song, a song that conveys utter peril: a distress Hersh is able to relate through music rather than suffer with in silence. Perhaps, the most sharp lyric is the repeated line "I need an umbrella..." which is finished with "if I'm going to go insane" and later "if I'm going to slit my wrists." The song sounds like a Southern anthem on cocaine. Drum beats like bullets, guitars like wires around the perimeter of the song - a claustrophobic exploration of a sickening, and intense pseudo-reality. The song is urgent like Hersh's pleading eyes.
"Counting Backwards," Throwing Muses (The Real Ramona, 1991).
Throwing Muses' sound is radio friendly on this track, subdued, but the lyrical presence in between the polished sounds is still mysterious, hypnotic, and unorthodox. The Muses' presentation became very well known, but the chaos, and the inexperience that principled their music is often ignored behind the winding, and rewinding harmonies that have characterized their cacophonous sounds: sometimes ironed, other times jagged and stained with the dirtiness of life - with unapologetic tragic confessions. Hersh's fascination with counting is another motif that leaves the listener to count along, to trace her thoughts and planned movements, alongside guitars, and drums woven so carefully to create a roller coaster of dips and rises that portray an instability I feel all too familiar with.
"Snakeface," Throwing Muses (University, 1995).
Hersh's lyrics, and the music work in tandem to create a slow, seductive song laced with sin and sway. Hersh's fascination with snakes comes into play to create a mellow tune that is memorable, staggered with pain-stakingly placed drum beats, with an escalating bass part that creates ripples, much like Hersh's side-to-side stage sway. Hersh describes a figure embodying a snake, creating a song about sex, and seduction with a hesitation conveyed elegantly, and deliberately as if she were a snake charmer.
"Bright Yellow Gun," Throwing Muses (University, 1995).
"Bright Yellow Gun" is a Muses 101 track. That's no coincidence. The song has all the unique liquid lyric Hersh is composed of, in a beautiful package. The song is addictive, a throbbing puzzle that Hersh invites you to complete:
I have nothing to offer
But a circus in my head
In the middle of the bed
In the middle of the night
With tight drum beats, and guitar that cuts in and out to bring a complicated focus: a guitar solo that features an unforgettable rhythm as Hersh's chant "Bright Yellow Gun" is repeated reliably, fading but never really leaving.
Just as "Bright Yellow Gun" fades out, a racket still droning, waiting to be silenced by Hersh and a record producer, Hersh is still waiting to be silenced. She is a river flowing, a cascading noise that echoes in fields surrounding it. A dam can only push the ideas closer: make the ideas more present in her mind. Hersh may feel out of control because of her disorder, but she is in control of her powerful sound - she is a brave, and important figure whose legacy is underrated, but whose essence will always remain in the hearts and heads of those who need her most.